Science Figures Interpreted and Analyzed by RealClearScience
World population growth is slowing down. By 2050, there will be approximately 9 billion people on Earth, and by 2100, there will be about 10 billion. However, after that, many demographers believe that the world's population will plateau or perhaps even decrease. Still, food shortages are a potential threat if agricultural output doesn't double by 2050. Unfortunately, a new analysis in PLoS ONE suggests that current crop yield trends are falling well short of this goal.
Researchers from the University of Minnesota report the growth yield of four major food crops: maize (corn) (1.6%), rice (1.0%), wheat (0.9%) and soybeans (1.3%), all of which are below the target growth rate of 2.4%. In terms of improving agricultural output, some regions of the world are doing better than others. (See figure. Red = decline in crop yield; green = increase in crop yield.)
What can we do to solve this potential food shortage? Obama Administration "Science Czar" John Holdren once discussed the possibility of stemming population growth using forcible sterilizations and abortions in his textbook on human population. But there are more pleasant options available. The authors suggest closing yield gaps, expanding cropland, changing our diet and reducing food waste. Not all of these ideas are good ones.
"Closing yield gaps" is perhaps the most obvious. A "yield gap" is the difference between what a piece of farmland is capable of producing and what it actually produces. Closing the yield gap means making farmland more efficient, which could be done by implementing better nutrient and water management practices. Expanding cropland is also a possibility, but as the authors indicate, it comes at the cost of reducing biodiversity. Changing the human diet to one that relies less on meat is fanciful; any policy that counts on changing human nature is almost certainly bound to fail. Reducing food waste is a good idea, but a tall order, since it will require vast improvements in the transportation and storage of food.
Two solutions were glaringly absent from the authors' analysis: (1) Banning food crops in biofuels, and (2) Increasing the utilization of genetically modified crops.
There is simply no reason to put food in our automobiles. Producing ethanol from corn is a terrible idea, as it drives up food prices, which disproportionately affect the world's poor. Biofuels, if they are to be made at all, should be produced from non-food crops, such as switch grass. And GMOs can increase yields and/or decrease losses due to disease, pests and drought.
In short, as long as we make sure to implement common sense solutions -- including our entire arsenal of biotechnological tools -- then the threat of food shortages is a completely solvable problem.
Source: Ray DK, Mueller ND, West PC, Foley JA (2013) Yield Trends Are Insufficient to Double Global Crop Production by 2050. PLoS ONE 8(6): e66428. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0066428